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Judge Okays Plan for Relocating Animals

Developer to Settle Mortgage Debt On Scotch Plains Zoo

Specially Written for The Times

A developer who recently purchased the Scotch Plains Zoo from former owners Harold and Deborah Kafka was expected to pay off the Kafkas’ mortgage debt today, August 28, thus bringing to a close the saga of the zoo, a favorite attraction for children for more than half a century.

Robert F. Kraus, the Scotch Plains attorney representing original zoo owners Frank and Louise Terry, said last Friday that a lump sum of $355,000 would be paid by Mitchell Berlant, the President of Scotch Plains Realty Investors, Inc., to the Terrys, who continued to hold the mortgage on the property after the Kafkas purchased it more than three years ago.

Mr. Berlant assumed the mortgage obligation after buying the property from the Kafkas for $338,000. A deed recorded on June 26 confirmed the transfer of ownership, and the Warren-based developer agreed to pay off the debt to the Terrys by Monday, September 1.

The future of the 6.5-acre site remains uncertain, however. Although Mr. Berlant has stated he would like to reopen a zoo on the property, speculation persists that he actually intends to develop the land for housing. Calls placed to Mr. Berlant’s office earlier this week were not returned.

Meanwhile, Superior Court Judge Frederick C. Kentz, Jr. in Elizabeth approved a plan submitted by Union Township attorney Martin B. O’Connor, 2nd, on August 20 for the relocation of more than 100 wildlife and farm animals housed at the zoo. In April, Judge Kentz appointed Mr. O’Connor as custodian of the zoo, which has been closed to the public since May 28.

Lawrence Herrighty, Supervising Biologist for the state Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife, on Friday revealed the various destinations of the animals. All the facilities were checked out by him and his staff to ensure that they had the proper permits to accept the animals.

Mr. Herrighty said the DEP had served as an advisory body to Mr. O’Connor as he prepared a plan for relocating the animals, and added that the department would also provide assistance in transporting them if the receiving facilities requested it.

He acknowledged that the Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife has so far received no permit application from Mr. Berlant to reopen a zoo on the property.

The biologist commended Mr. O’Connor’s efforts, saying he believed the custodian for the zoo "did a good job" in finding new homes for the animals. Of the plan approved by Judge Kentz last week, Mr. Herrighty said, "I think it’s very fair and in the best interest of the animals."

According to Mr. Herrighty, any facility accepting animals from the Scotch Plains Zoo must sign a contract which prohibits them from selling or transferring the animals for five years without prior notification of Mr. O’Connor, and also protects the animals from being slaughtered, used for research or otherwise exploited.

"He’s written a very good contract which covers the public’s concerns about the animals," commented Mr. Herrighty.

The facilities which are expected to ultimately receive the animals include the Grassmere Nashville Wildlife Park in Tennessee; the Roar Foundation in California; the Grand Island Heritage Zoo in Nebraska; the Natural Bridge Zoo in Virginia; Primarily Primates in San Antonio, Texas, and the Royal Vista Sanctuary in New Hampshire, which is earmarked to become the new home of "Raja," a 4-year-old tiger who has appeared on television.

Other facilities which are expected to open their doors to animals from the Scotch Plains Zoo include the Pocono Snake and Wildlife Farm and the Appalachia Pet Farm, both in Pennsylvania, and Popcorn Park in Forked River, which has agreed to take two mountain lions which were hard to place because many zoos already have them, according to Mr. Herrighty.

He reported that many of the zoo’s domestic animals, such as sheep, goats, rabbits and ducks, will be going to the Peterson Farm in Plainfield, and that the Buffalo Zoo in New York will get back its spider monkey and debrazza monkey which were on loan to the Scotch Plains Zoo. He added that it was still undecided where two jaguars, three ring-tailed lemurs and another debrazza monkey would be going.

In January, the Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife opted not to renew the Kafkas’ operating permits, citing multiple violations concerning public safety and animal welfare.

After the Kafkas withdrew their planned appeal of the state’s ruling on May 13, they were given 15 days to present a plan for relocating the animals. The zoo was ordered closed after the couple failed to meet that deadline.

Mr. Herrighty confirmed that six summonses issued by the state to the Kafkas at the end of May were still in place, and that a new court date was still pending.

Four of the summonses, for possession of non-game and exotic animals without a proper permit, are related to the Endangered Species Act and carry potential fines of between $250 and $5,000. The other two summonses, which fall under Game Regulations, carry possible penalties of between $50 and $250.

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